Northern Ireland

Senior GP warns more people will be forced to choose between their health and debt

There has been a significant rise in people turning to the private sector for operations
There has been a significant rise in people turning to the private sector for operations

A senior GP has warned that increased hospital waiting times will force more people to choose between their health and going into debt.

Dr Ursula Mason practices in Carryduff and is chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland.

She told the BBC there had been a significant rise in people turning to the private sector for operations.

Traditionally, hip or knee replacements were a common option for those seeking private treatment but Dr Mason said this had expanded.

"More often than not people are putting their hands in their pockets and asking family, perhaps, to fund private care," she said.

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"We are seeing more and more patients choosing to go down the route of private healthcare perhaps financially detrimentally to themselves - they are getting into debt which will have a knock-on effect further down the line."

It's further reported that the independent Kingsbridge Hospital in Northern Ireland saw business increase by a third in 2021 and 2022.

Chief executive Mark Regan said that over the years, the public left waiting too long for treatment no longer viewed private healthcare with the same "elitist aspect" as before.

"Your health is a one off, you have one opportunity and therefore people are finding other ways," he said.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has said that a steady decline in access to the health service was greatly accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Philip Stevenson (75) spoke of how he paid £3,000 to privately get cateracts treated in one eye.

Having worked as a part time lorry driver, he felt he had no choice but to pay the money or face his health deteriorate further.

"I was very lucky that I could afford to pay for it, more fortunate than other people, and I felt if I go private I am helping the health service as someone else can have my place," he said.

"I didn't like it... but that's the way it is."

Mr Stevenson's optometrist Brian McKeown, who is vice-chair of Optometry Northern Ireland, said it was becoming an increasing problem.

In 2019, he said around 10-20 per cent of patients were referred privately for cataract surgery, which jumped to 60-70 per cent last year.

The Department of Health spokesperson admitted that providing timely care was becoming more challenging.

"We are clearly a considerable distance from this goal, the route to get there has been clearly mapped out," they said.

"It will require sustained action to increase hospital capacity through both investment and reconfiguration of services.

"Reconfiguration is underway with the establishment of Day Procedure Units and Overnight Stay Centres."

They added that "significant funds" had been spent to ease pressure using the private sector.

In the first nine months of 2022/23, this included 91,668 assessments, diagnostic tests and treatments purchased from private healthcare.